Aiming to lay down statement of intent in F1 opener

Daniel Ricciardo has called on Red Bull to deliver a championship-winning statement of intent at Formula 1's season-opening Australian Grand Prix '“ but fears Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes team will still be the sport's leading force.

Red Bull started last season off the pace of both Mercedes and Ferrari, but ended the campaign with two victories from the last six rounds after Ricciardo’s team-mate, Max Verstappen, won in Malaysia and then Mexico.

Home favourite Ricciardo will head into Melbourne’s Albert Park opener hopeful that Red Bull have continued to take strides over the winter as he bids to secure his first podium finish in front of the Australian crowd.

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But, speaking on the eve of this year’s first race, the 28-year-old conceded that Mercedes – the dominant constructor that have won the last four driver and team championships – are set to hold the advantage once more.

“There’s a lot more confidence within the team,” said Ricciardo. “Every year we have worked hard to build a fast car, but come testing we have not really had a lot to show for it, but this winter we had a bit more.

“I still feel like the top three teams will be Mercedes, Ferrari and us. I hope it’s a bit more compressed but Mercedes will probably turn up this weekend and they’ll be the ones to beat.

“For us to have a strong weekend, however, would set a statement for the year and show that we would be fighting for the championship. It would be awesome to get off on the right foot.”

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Ricciardo’s own future is up for debate with his Red Bull contract due to expire at the end of the year.

Ricciardo could have the pick of Mercedes and Ferrari with Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen both respectively signed to just one-year deals.

The Australian has vowed to do his talking on the track with the potential of a lucrative switch, to another of the sport’s top marques should he choose to seek pastures new, or indeed remain at Red Bull. “At the end of the day the results are going to do the talking,” added Ricciardo.

“For any of us out of contract I believe the driver who is going to be in the hot-seat is not the person who does the best negotiating, but the one who does the best on track. That’s really my focus at the moment – to come out on the right foot here in Melbourne – and to try and fight for the title this year.”